(2016) *** R
120 min. Bleecker Street. Director: Sean Ellis. Cast: Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Brian Caspe, Toby Jones.

/content/films/4948/2.jpgThe appropriate but less-than-commercial title of the new WWII spy thriller Anthropoid refers to the film’s true-story basis: Operation Anthropoid. This assassination plot by British Special Operations and the Czechoslovak resistance took its name from the Greek word for “having the form of a human.” As such the title is about as literal and as figurative as possible: the name of the mission the film depicts, and a reminder of human dignity in opposition to an enemy determined to blot it out via genocide and physical and emotional tortures.

The no-nonsense screenplay by director-producer-cinematographer Sean Ellis (Cashback) and longtime Stanley Kubrick assistant Anthony Frewin (Color Me Kubrick) begins in 1941, with two soldiers from the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile parachuting back into German–occupied Czechoslovakia. These are Czech Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan of Fifty Shades of Grey) and Slovak Jozef Gab?ík (Cillian Murphy of Inception), and they face a daunting task: assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich—the Reich's third in command after Hitler and Himmler, the man credited as the principal architect of the Final Solution—in a Prague crawling with Nazis.

Jozef and Jan’s contact, “Uncle” Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones) poses a key question: “Is Czechoslovakia still ready and willing to resist Nazi Germany?” Happily, Anthropoid determines not to offer any straightforward answer that question in the process of detailing the true-to-life mission particulars, and teasing out some fictionalized personal drama, mostly in a romantic vein. The mission itself comes at the film’s halfway mark, allowing for examination not only of the operation’s outcome, but the survival efforts that followed, the Nazi blowback, and the prismatic meaning of the mission as seen in the greater context of the war.

/content/films/4948/1.jpgIt’s all done in a suitably matter-of-fact style that honors the story’s historicity. Because of the nature of that story, the film also includes two taut action sequences: the operation itself and a heavy-artillery urban-siege climax. In a likely fictionalized subplot, two women of the resistance aid in the effort, which also serves as a sexual/romantic accelerant as concerns the two men leading the charge. Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová) pair up with Jan and Jozef, despite Lenka’s assertion “War is not romantic.”

Ellis shoots the film in deep-set shadows and filtered hues that cool from earthy to pallid as the heroes’ challenges become more dire. Ellis rarely pushes for effect, but when he does (a simple setup-payoff with one character’s violin playing, for example), the moment feels right. So while Anthropoid tends to the sober and dour, it also breaks into the brutal, the intense, and the emotionally devastating, all the right “moves” for a war story of moral heft compromised by Pyrrhic victory.

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